What do modern Japanese think of Zen?

The living side of "Zen"

Temple Buddhism in modern Japan

by Inken Prohl

In order to understand the role of Zen Buddhism in contemporary Japan, Heidelberg religious scholars have not only studied the scriptures, but have drawn into the field. They spoke to religious actors, watched their actions and attended the ceremonies in Japanese temples. Zen Buddhist schools, it turned out during the studies, are extraordinarily present in modern Japan. However, Zen Buddhism in Japan has little in common with the attributions that Zen Buddhism experiences in Europe.

The term “Zen” has become a buzzword. "Zen" is associated with exercises of meditation, relaxation and stress reduction, cosmetics and sweets are advertised and new, simple forms of lifestyle are propagated. The term “Zen” is often associated with wishes and longings for special religious experiences. For many, the term “Zen” conveys the peculiarities of Japan as a closed, exotic and deeply mystical Asian culture.

These assumptions are based on misunderstandings. They are the result of a misleading transfer of Western terms such as “mysticism” to the Japanese context. The one-sided concentration of research on religion on the study of texts rather than on religious actors and their practice also contributed to the development of these misconceptions.

For several decades now, religious historians and scholars have been focusing on the socio-historical, anthropological and sociological aspects of religious practice. With regard to Japan, an “other side of Zen” has emerged. The following questions are addressed:

What role does Zen Buddhism play in contemporary Japan? Are the Japanese more relaxed and less stressed by the influence of Zen Buddhism? Do you even meditate? How can the simple aesthetics of “Zen” be reconciled with the garish chaos of modern Japanese mega-cities?

To anticipate the answer: With more than 20,000 temples, the Zen Buddhist schools are extraordinarily present in contemporary Japan. However, because of their attachment to Zen Buddhism, the Japanese are neither significantly less stressed than people in other parts of the world, nor do they meditate particularly often.

At the center of Zen Buddhism is zazen. Zazen describes the silent sitting in the lotus position, which is modeled on the posture of Buddha Shakyamuni with which he reached awakening under the Bodhi tree. In the West, the practice of zazen is often understood as "meditation". In order to avoid misunderstandings about the nature and goals of this practice, it is better to use the neutral term "sitting still". Of the 20,000 Zen Buddhist temples in Japan, there are only 70 institutions that function as monasteries where Buddhist clergymen practice zazen as part of monastic life. Only 600 temples, or five percent of the total number of temples, also offer meetings in which lay people practice “sitting quietly”.

Most Japanese visit a Zen Buddhist temple to attend a funeral ceremony or ancestral ritual. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese are drawn to one of the large Zen Buddhist monasteries every year to have Zen priests carry out bit rituals there for the solution of problems or the fulfillment of their wishes. The large Zen Buddhist temples, especially in the old imperial capital of Kyoto, which attract crowds of visitors, are places of remembrance where visitors reassure themselves of their cultural past and identity.

How important is Zen Buddhism within the religious scene in Japan? The vast majority of Japanese belong to one of the 80,000 Buddhist temples. The temples are organized in different schools. Most of the members have the Pure Land Schools, the Nichiren School, and the Shingon School of Esoteric Buddhism. With a good three million members, the Zen Buddhist organizations are one of the smaller Buddhist schools.

Zen Buddhism is divided into three directions: Soto, Rinzai and Obaku Zen. Many Japanese are not sure which Buddhist school they belong to or which Buddhist school their family temple belongs to. The temple that is entrusted with the care of the family grave is called the family temple. The differences in teaching and practice that exist between the schools of the Pure Land, Amida or Zen Buddhism play a subordinate role for them. If you ask a Japanese which Buddhist school he belongs to, the answer is often that he does not know that, because fortunately no one in his family has died for a long time.

In Japan, the family temple becomes important when there is a death in the family. Then the priest becomes the main point of contact for questions regarding the complicated ceremonial of a funeral. It is he who carries out the complex funeral ceremonies. Additional visits to the temple take place on the occasion of ancestral memorial ceremonies. In addition, the majority of Japanese people have little contact with their family temple, especially in the large urban centers.

The family temples draw the majority of their income from funeral and ancestral rituals. For these reasons, contemporary Japanese Buddhism is often disparagingly dubbed “burial Buddhism”. In the Zen Buddhist schools, too, the priests are primarily responsible for death.

Why do the priests of Zen Buddhism, which in the West is primarily associated with meditation, mysticism and simple aesthetics, act primarily as specialists in death in Japan? What does “sitting still”, which is at the center of Zen Buddhism, have to do with rituals in the dead? Why is Buddhism even associated with death and ancestors in Japan? To answer these questions, we need to turn to the history of Zen Buddhism in Japan.

Chinese Chan Buddhism was introduced to Japan as Zen Buddhism in the Middle Ages. The Zen Buddhists brought something new to the Japanese: they radically simplified the path to knowing the truth. Zen Buddhism teaches that access to truth, as recognized by the historical Buddha, is achieved through sitting still and studying the koan. By sitting still, Zen Buddhists imitate the awakening of the historical Buddha. The Koan are the sayings and exclamations of awakened masters and their dialogues with the students through which they awaken them.

In both cases the awakening occurs beyond the possibility of comprehension by the rational mind. According to its self-image, Zen Buddhism is based on recognizing the true nature of being, is independent of the authority of holy scriptures and is conveyed from master to student in an unbroken line that goes back to the historical Buddha.

In Mahayana Buddhism, the "Great Vehicle", the historical Buddha, the Bodhisattvas and mythical Buddhas as well as the Buddhist Dharma, that is, the truth that the Buddha recognized, are viewed as a source of special power. With this power, the Buddhist salvation program to lead all living beings to salvation can be realized. The closer you are to the sources of power, the more effectively it can help suffering beings to be saved. In the Middle Ages, Zen Buddhists had impressive performative means at their disposal with ritual sitting and koan literature to demonstrate their closeness to the historical Buddha and the Dharma. The zazen advanced to a powerful ritual staging with which the Zen Buddhists demonstrated their religious superiority.

With these ritual stagings, they confronted one of the most pressing problems facing the religious scene in Japan: the religious landscape was populated by terrifying, angry and malevolent spirits. Japanese historians of religion go so far as to refer to the Japanese religions as the religion of terror before the introduction of Buddhism. The priests of the Zen Buddhist schools, especially the Soto school, taught that these malevolent spirits are suffering beings. They began to use their special power to redeem these spirits.

The spirits were formally converted to the Sangha, the Buddhist community, and thus freed from their suffering. With their resentment and anger, their negative influence on people died away. Gradually, the ordination rituals with which the spirits were accepted into the community of Zen Buddhists were extended to all of the deceased. The Soto School developed burial rituals that accepted the deceased by giving them a posthumous name in the Zen Buddhist Sangha. Over time, most of the other Buddhist schools adopted this practice, which continues to form the basis of "funeral Buddhism" to this day.

From the 17th century onwards, all Japanese were forced by the government to register at a Buddhist temple. Decisive for the question of what kind of temple the registration takes place at, were not doctrinal questions, but above all the spatial proximity to a temple. The Soto School in particular used this government measure to oblige members of their family temples to participate in funeral and ancestral rituals. It always brought forth new rituals and ceremonies that temple members had to attend.

In the present day the Buddhist schools can no longer force anyone to use the Buddhist burial and ancestral rituals. It is certainly due to the centuries-old connection between the rituals of the dead and Buddhism that hardly a Japanese can imagine doing without the presence of a priest at the funeral ceremonies. There must be other reasons for the high level of prestige that Buddhist temples have for dealing with death and for the large sums paid in Japan for holding burials.

Questions about how the relationship between temples and their relatives is shaped in social reality and what importance temple visits are ascribed can hardly be answered on the basis of the study of texts alone. For this reason, religious studies, together with sciences such as Sinology or Japanese Studies, are increasingly pursuing multi-method approaches that combine the study of texts with anthropological methods such as field research or interviews with actors.

At the Institute for Religious Studies at Heidelberg University, various projects deal with the social reality of lived religions using anthropological methods. The researchers go “into the field” for a while to talk to religious actors and to observe their actions and interactions as well as the performative and aesthetic dimensions of religious action. For the investigation of the Japanese Zen Buddhism of the present, it follows from this to attend the processes at a Japanese temple for a while.

Field research carried out by the author in the years 2005 to 2006 at a Soto Buddhist temple in rural Japan confirms that the majority of members of the Zen schools hardly ever come into contact with the practice of zazen. At the meetings, at which the temple offers lay people to practice zazen once a week, only five to six members of the temple, whose congregation comprises more than 600 families, take part on average.

Most of the temple members only visit the temple to attend funeral rituals or ancestral commemoration ceremonies. Very few turn to the temple and its priest to discuss religious matters or personal problems. However, it does not follow from these observations that the practice of "sitting still" is meaningless for contemporary Zen Buddhism. A look at the interactions between priests and laypeople illustrates the importance of "sitting quietly".

As a rule, the temples within the priestly families are inherited from father to son. Buddhist priests have been allowed to marry since the end of the 19th century. The wives of the temple priests perform important tasks in the temple. They prepare ceremonies, are responsible for entertaining guests, and in many cases also manage the finances of the temple.

The training to become a Zen Buddhist priest takes place in two stages: First, most future priests attend a Buddhist university. This is followed by at least one year of training in a monastery in the Zen Buddhist Soto school. During this time the future priests practice monastic discipline, which also includes long and intense phases of "sitting quietly".

This discipline is supposed to train the mind to constant awareness and to help it to let go of itself. Through this discipline, future priests become members of the community of the awakened and gain access to the religiously effective powers ascribed to the Dharma and the Sangha. These powers enable them to perform funeral and ancestral commemoration ceremonies, during which they are supposed to free the spirits of the deceased.

In the course of the tough monastic training, the future priests practice a calm and serene state of mind. This attitude helps them deal with death and those who mourn. Much more important, however, is the special habitus that they acquire. Soto priests emphasize that in their training in quiet sitting and in Zen Buddhist ceremonies, above all they learn the appropriate behavior, the etiquette of a priest. Their closeness to the Buddhist Dharma is primarily expressed physically. You will acquire a firm posture, a set gait and calm and leisurely movements. In this way, the religious superiority of the Zen priests, who are entrusted with the liberation of the dead, can also be seen externally. With this habitus the priests, when reciting the sutras, which is an essential part of the funeral ceremonies, represent the connection to the power of the Buddhist Dharma, which is supposed to free the deceased.

A similar relationship between sitting still and the power of Dharma can also be observed in the great Soto Zen monasteries, which, as places of power, attract hundreds of thousands of visitors. They want religious help in healing illness, liberation from suffering, and fulfilling wishes.

For a fee, visitors can take part in the Bittrituals. The visitors witness elaborate displays of religious power. Disciplined by intensive monastic training and the practice of zazen, the priests move completely synchronously when entering the temple hall, performing the ritual bows and reciting the sutras. The bit rituals seem to be guided by an invisible hand. Their dreamlike perfect interplay gives the impression of being beyond the world. Here, too, the closeness to the Buddhist Dharma is made visible for everyone and thus plausible and understandable. The chief priest remains motionless in zazen throughout the ceremony of the bitter rituals. In this way the historical Buddha becomes ritually present as a source of liberating power.

The funeral ceremony and the practice of bitter rituals impressively demonstrate that "sitting quietly" is the central point of reference for the self-understanding and presentation of Zen Buddhism up to the present day. Paradoxically, sitting still, which is viewed in the West as a means of realizing worldly goals such as relaxation and stress reduction, functions as a decisive vehicle for making the assumed religious salvific effect of Zen Buddhism plausible and real. A look at the social reality of Zen Buddhism illustrates that in Japan it has little to do with mysticism or with special supernatural experiences and in no way with a special lifestyle or special cosmetics.

The misunderstandings that are circulating in the West regarding Buddhism and Zen Buddhism are clearly evident. These misunderstandings are mainly due to the inappropriate transfer of European concepts such as “mysticism” or “religious experience” to non-European cultures.

Examining the social reality of non-European religions helps us to see that it is much more than these religions themselves that the inappropriate application of these terms to them leads to exoticization and essentialization. Desires for posthumous salvation, problem solving, and wish fulfillment, as expressed and religiously answered in Zen Buddhism, are probably all too familiar to most of us.

Inken Prohl has been a professor at the Institute for Religious Studies at Heidelberg University since 2006.She did her doctorate and habilitation at the Free University of Berlin and spent several years researching new religious developments in Japan at the University of Tokyo and Hitotsubashi University.
Contact: [email protected]


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Last change: 03.06.2009